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Jury: Louisville SWAT members not entitled to pay for ‘on-call’ time

 Two Louisville Metro Police Department cruisers are parked under an overpass in Louisville.
J. Tyler Franklin
Louisville Public Media
Two Louisville Metro Police Department cruisers are parked under an overpass in Louisville.

A jury ruled against Louisville Metro Police Department SWAT team members who were suing the city for back pay and overtime compensation for the months they spent “on call” starting in 2002. 

The decision in Jefferson County Circuit Court on Friday saved Louisville Metro from what was potentially a multimillion-dollar payout. Since the early 2000s, the city has paid more than $80 million in back pay and pensions for its firefighters because of similar lawsuits.

The officers represented in this lawsuit included current and former members of LMPD’s SWAT unit, which serves high-risk warrants and responds to incidents involving barricaded subjects and hostages. 

Louisville lawyer Ann Oldfather filed the suit in 2016, arguing that the lack of pay for the time officers were expected to be “on call” violated the Kentucky Wage and Hour Act. The officers said they were prohibited from traveling outside of Jefferson County or drinking alcohol while on call.

“The City has restricted the SWAT Team members from effectively using the time in which they are on-call for personal pursuits and, therefore, the time in which SWAT Team members serve on-call constitutes work under the Kentucky Wage and Hour Act,” Oldfather wrote in the complaint.

In total, 46 current and former LMPD officers were claiming unpaid wages, including River City Fraternal Order of Police union president Ryan Nichols. 

In a statement following the verdict, Jessica Wethington, spokesperson for Mayor Greg Fischer, thanked the jury for finding “SWAT team members were fully and fairly compensated for their work.”

Over the course of the lawsuit, LMPD’s SWAT team members argued the limitations on what they could do with their time while on call forced them to miss social functions, vacations and more. 

The SWAT team members were required to be on call for a full month, every other month, according to the lawsuit. While on call, officers had to be ready to respond within 45 minutes. LMPD’s SWAT team responded to 195 call-outs in 2015 and 132 in 2014.

In addition to prohibitions on drinking and traveling, officers said they were unable to find off-duty employment because they potentially would have to leave at any moment, without prior notice. In court filings, they said they were unable to do many activities that limited their ability to hear their cell phone or pager, “such as going to the movies, mowing their lawn, using a chainsaw or other machinery.”

While LMPD’s SWAT team guidelines allowed on-call employees to find a replacement if they were unable to respond to a call, the lawsuit argued that was effectively impossible. That’s because half the SWAT team would be on call any given month and members who were not on call were still expected to respond to certain events.

Louisville Police Chief Erika Shields testified in defense of the city’s on-call rules during the week-and-a-half long trial, which began July 20. According to WDRB, Shields said she believed SWAT officers were being fairly compensated and that LMPD’s policy is in line with other departments.

"I’m sorry, but when you are waiting on a phone to ring, that is not work," Shields testified. "I’ve never talked to a chief where they pay officers for being on call."

It’s unclear if Oldfather plans to appeal the jury’s decision in favor of Louisville Metro. She did not respond to WFPL News’ requests for comment on Monday. 

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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